The Next Big “B”
Compliments are nice to get, sure, but a really, really big compliment can be a burden. Johannes Brahms would know. When Brahms was just 20, Robert Schumann announced to the public that the unknown young German would soon be the world’s next great composer! Schumann’s words weighed heavily on Brahms. Though he proved a great mentor to Brahms, his prediction made the reserved, meticulous composer feel like he had to be an even finer craftsman.
Schumann, it turned out, was absolutely right. When Brahms was still in his 40s, people were already speaking of the “three great Bs”—as if he were the equal of Bach and Beethoven. His four symphonies and violin and piano concertos are standards in the classical repertoire. Almost everyone recognizes his “Lullaby” and probably also the piano four-hands Waltz op. 39, no. 15, which Suzuki adapted for violin. In fact, Brahms wrote masterpieces in every type of composition he tried, including works for chamber groups, solo piano, solo voice and choir.
This wealth of music came not only from hard work and genius. It helped, too, that Brahms led a mostly uneventful personal life. He studied composition from a young age, and early on was known as a concert pianist, not a composer. He later held posts as a choir director and orchestra conductor but always arranged things to leave plenty of time for composing. The Schumann family relied much on his help during Robert’s final illness, and after his death Clara stayed one of Brahms’ closest lifelong friends. Brahms was a bachelor with a studious personality, and in his music some hear the conflict between this outward detachment and an intense inner sadness. He was fond of his routine and long walks in the woods around Vienna, where he settled. He had an unusual interest in Renaissance and Baroque music, but also a love of Roma or Gypsy folk tunes.
One disruption from his work, though, lasted his whole adult life. With Schumann’s public praise, Brahms was drawn into a feud between advocates of two musical styles. Though most of the composers treated the “other side” with respect, fans and journalists tended to see the fight as a battle of right versus wrong. On one side, Romantic composers like Liszt and Wagner prized emotional expression over traditional structure and rhythmic pattern, and they created new harmonies to further expression. If their rival Schumann was for Brahms, they reasoned, then they were against him. The Romantics saw Brahms as stodgy and against change, and for a time this attitude made it hard for Brahms to find work as a conductor.
Today, musicians see the “old-fashioned” insult as part of what’s best about Brahms. He lived in the Romantic period, but his music looks both forward and back in time. Brahms embraced both the earlier Classical compositions’ tight structure and the emotional freedom that Wagner triumphed. In this way, he could take the symphony—already an old form in his day—and excite his audiences just as powerfully as did his rivals’ music. Some modern listeners see a humorous twist here. The forward motion that keeps us drawn into such lengthy works comes from lessons that Brahms learned from the tightly structured music of such old-fashioned musicians as Haydn, Mozart, and Bach!